Success in the capstone business course--assessing the
effectiveness of distance learning.
Author: Sonner, Brenda S. Source: Journal of Education for Business v. 74 no4 (Mar./Apr.
'99) p. 243-7 ISSN: 0883-2323 Number: BEDI99012569 Copyright: The magazine
publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further
reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.
Technology is opening up many new options for students. Students who wish
to continue their education are no longer limited to a traditional classroom
setting. To accommodate students, colleges and universities now commonly
offer classes in a variety of formats, from television classes to classes over
the Internet. Gubernick and Ebeling (1997) estimated that 55% of U.S.
colleges and universities now offer courses off site. Even universities with
prestigious academic reputations are adding distance-learning options
(Bartlett, 1997; Gubernick & Ebeling, 1997).
Although students may like the flexibility offered by distance learning, there
continues to be concern about the quality of those programs (Gubernick &
Ebeling, 1997; Levine, 1997). Although the academic literature includes
numerous studies that have assessed student performance in distance
education classes, most of those studies have examined only the grades that
students in the distance-learning sections earned (Heines & Hulse, 1996;
Kabat & Friedel, 1990; Puzzuoli, 1970). Furthermore, virtually all of the
published research has focused on television- and video-based options
(Davis & Johnson, 1966; Heines & Hulse, 1996; Kabat & Friedel, 1990;
My purpose in the present study was to examine the impact that having
taken one or more of the fundamental business classes in a distance-
learning format has on student success in the final, capstone business class.
The capstone class is taught under a variety of names; its purpose generally
is to integrate the knowledge gained in all previous business courses, across
all disciplines. As such, the class requires students to have a firm grasp of
the concepts from virtually every business class they have taken.
In the present study, I attempted to ascertain whether those students who
had completed part of their studies through distance learning had as firm a
grasp of fundamental business concepts as did students who had taken all of
their classes in a traditional classroom environment. Further, I examined the
effectiveness of three specific types of distance learning: television classes,
correspondence courses, and self-study for standardized examinations for
Distance learning is hardly a new idea; correspondence classes have been
offered since the mid-1800s (Lever-Duffy, 1991). As new technologies have
been developed, academic institutions have added class options to take
advantage of those new delivery systems (Lever-Duffy, 1991). Today,
educators have made a variety of options available to bring education to
students who otherwise would not be able to take classes.
Previous attempts to assess the effectiveness of those classes have either
examined only the final grades for students who took the course through
distance learning (Davis & Johnson, 1966) or compared the average class, or
group, grades for students who were enrolled in traditional classrooms and
those of students who studied the material through distance learning
(Heines & Hulse, 1996; Kabat & Friedel, 1990; Puzzuoli, 1970; Woodward,
1964). The conclusion of most of those studies was that students in the
distance-learning courses earned higher grades than did their in-class
colleagues (Bartlett, 1997; Heines & Hulse, 1996; Kabat & Friedel, 1990;
Prior research, however, is dominated by studies that examined only
television classes. Broadcasting classes via a network or a university's own
internal broadcasting system is so prevalent that it is hardly surprising that
the effectiveness of that medium has been an issue of concern (Bates,
1986). In an extensive review of studies that compared television classes
with traditional face-to-face instruction, Chu and Schramm (1967) concluded
that most of the studies showed little difference between the two formats.
Indeed, the consensus seems to be that television classes provide a close
approximation of traditional face-to-face instruction (Lever-Duffy, 1991, p.
Few published studies have measured the effectiveness of the newer
distance-learning options. In one recent study, the University of Phoenix
administered standardized achievement tests to students who took classes
via the Internet and to students in on-campus classes. The students who
took the Internet classes scored from 5 to 10% higher on standardized
achievement tests than did the students in the on-campus programs
(Gubernick & Ebeling, 1997).
Overall, those results suggest that students learn more in courses taken
through distance learning. Students in distance-learning courses may not
have the normal distractions of a classroom environment and, therefore,
may be able to retain more of the course material. Although those students
do not enjoy the same classroom interaction through which the material is
reviewed and rehearsed or additional insights gained from class discussions
and comments (Lever-Duffy, 1991), they may be motivated enough to
overcome any problems associated with the distance-learning approach
In the present study, I went beyond simply assessing the students' final
course grades--an indication of how many facts and details they
remembered in the short term--and focused instead on how well the
students could recall and use the concepts and theories in a future course.
In addition, I examined the results of three separate types of distance
learning: television classes, correspondence classes, and self-study for
standardized exams to earn course credit.
METHODData for this study were gathered from business students at a small
southeastern university. That university presented a unique opportunity to
conduct the research because it offers several distance-learning options, in
addition to the traditional classroom environment. Those distance-learning
options are very popular, and students at that university frequently take one
or more classes through some form of distance learning.
Students may choose to take classes via television, in which the lectures are
televised but students attend review sessions and take the examinations at
preset times in a traditional classroom setting. Another option is a "learning
contract" under which the student works independently to complete the
required coursework, but under the direction of an assigned faculty member.
Assignments are mailed to the faculty member, who grades them and
returns them to the student. For examinations, the students identify an
appropriate individual to whom exams are mailed. That individual
administers the exams and returns the completed exam to the faculty
member. A final option that students at that university frequently use is the
college level examination program (CLEP) credit. In that option, the student
studies the material independently, with no faculty assistance, and then
takes a national standardized examination. The students who score above a
certain range are given course credit.
Data were collected from every student who enrolled in the capstone class
during a five-quarter period. At the beginning of each quarter, the students
were asked to complete a survey that listed every business class required of
business majors. (The 12 required business classes are listed in Appendix
A.) The students were asked when they completed each course and how
they took the class: regular classroom, television, learning contract, or CLEP
credit. At that university, the capstone class can only be taken in a
traditional classroom environment.
The dependent measure of this study was the student's final course grade in
the capstone class. At the end of the quarter, the students' final class grades
were matched to their surveys. To control for any bias due to differences in
teaching style, the same instructor taught every section of the capstone
course during the study.
RESULTSA total of 85 students completed the capstone business course
during the period in which data were gathered. That class is a requirement
for graduation and, therefore, any student who enrolled but did not complete
the course eventually re-enrolled in a later quarter.
Distance-learning options are very popular at that university. Sixty-five
percent of the sample had taken at least one of the required classes through
distance learning. Forty-nine percent of the sample had taken at least one
television course, and 12% had completed at least one course under a
learning contract. Twenty-one percent had received CLEP credit. The
students who had taken distance-learning classes, had, on average,
completed two of their required business classes through some form of
Although the students could have taken classes in more than one distance-
learning format, very few did so. Seventy-eight percent of the students who
earned course credit in a distance-learning format did so in only one format.
Only 22% of the students earned credit in two distance-learning formats,
and only 2% (one student) earned course credit in all three formats.
A preliminary examination indicated that there were no differences among
the students in each of the five quarters (see Table 1). The students were
similar in terms of final course grade, span of time to complete the required
classes, and number of required classes completed at the particular
institution. From that analysis, there appeared to be no differences among
the students who took the capstone class in different quarters, and thus, it
was acceptable to combine all of the participants into one sample.
IMPACT OF DISTANCE-LEARNING CLASSESI conducted several analyses to
assess the impact of having taken one or more of the required business
classes in a distance-learning format. In each analysis, I examined the
relationship in a different manner.
In the first analysis, the sample was split between those who had earned
credit in at least one distance-learning option and those who had taken only
regular classroom courses. I used analysis of variance to ascertain whether
there was a difference in the final course grades for the students in the two
groups. The results indicated that those students who had earned credit in at
least one distance-learning class had a significantly higher average in the
capstone class than did those students who had taken only traditional
courses (see Table 2). The average grade in the capstone course was 80.6
for those students who had taken one or more of the required business
classes in a distance-learning format, compared with an average grade of
only 78.3 for those who had taken all of the required business classes in a
regular classroom environment.
There was a significant, positive correlation between the number of distance-
learning courses the students had completed and their final class average (r
= .2590, p = .017). Clearly, those students who had taken more of the
required classes through distance-learning formats performed better in the
capstone class than did the other students.
To investigate that issue further, I again divided the sample into two groups:
those with grades below the median for their class and those with grades
above the median. The students whose grades were below the median had
taken, on average, one of their required classes via distance learning,
whereas the students whose grades were above the median had taken, on
average, two of their classes via distance learning.
COMPARISON OF THE DISTANCE-LEARNING FORMATSThe three distance-
learning options offered by the university represent a continuum of different
levels of faculty involvement and student control in the learning process. In
the television option, for example, students can be essentially passive
recipients of instructor-delivered information (Swift, Wilson, & Wayland,
1997). Students may choose when to view a televised lecture (live or
recorded for future viewing) but have no control over the speed at which the
information is delivered or the timing of the examinations. In the other two
options (learning contracts and CLEP credit), there is less faculty
involvement and students must take a more active role in the learning
process. Those options offer students more control over the process than the
television option does. In the learning contract and CLEP options, the
student can control when, where, and at what speed the learning process
occurs. The CLEP option provides no faculty involvement and consequently
requires the greatest level of student involvement. The students must find
appropriate study materials and must identify and learn the key concepts of
I conducted further analyses to determine if a particular distance-learning
format provided a superior learning environment and, thus, better
preparation for the capstone class. An examination of the average grade for
students in each of the four groups suggested that students who earned
CLEP credit performed much better in the capstone class, followed by
students who earned credit via a learning contract (see Table 3). From that
preliminary analysis, it appears that greater student involvement in earlier
business courses provides a better foundation for taking the capstone class.
The sample did not include enough students whose only distance-learning
option was learning contracts or CLEP credit to permit comparisons between
those forms of distance learning and regular classrooms. To overcome that
limitation, I combined the students who had taken only learning contracts or
earned only CLEP credit. Three additional students had earned both learning
contract and CLEP credit, and those participants were also included in this
I analyzed the three groups (regular classes only, television classes as the
only distance-learning option, and learning contracts and CLEP credit as the
only distance-learning options) to determine if different types of distance
learning resulted in better performance in the capstone class.
The results showed a difference in student grades among the three groups
(see Table 4). I analyzed specific contrasts to determine which groups were
different. Those contrasts indicated that the grades for the students who had
taken one or more of their required business classes through a learning
contract or had earned CLEP credit had higher grades than the students who
had taken only regular, in-classroom classes or whose only distance learning
was through television courses. There was no statistically significant
difference between the grades of the students who had taken only regular,
in-classroom classes and the grades of those whose only distance learning
was through television courses.
Those results indicate that the students who earned credit through television
courses performed comparably to students who had only traditional, on-site
classes. In addition, the students who took courses in the more unstructured
distance-learning formats exhibited the best performance in the capstone
DISCUSSIONDistance-learning options have become pervasive in higher
education. Those courses, however, create enormous problems for
accreditation organizations and anyone concerned with assessing the quality
of the instruction in those courses. The key question must be whether
students receive a quality education in distance-learning formats.
The results of the present study indicate that, overall, students who have
taken some of the required, foundation courses for the capstone class
through distance learning perform as well as, if not better than, students
who have taken courses only in a traditional classroom environment. It
appears that students can successfully learn the important and fundamental
business concepts when they study in a distance-learning format. Even
without the benefits of class discussions and interaction with faculty and
other students, students who have studied in a distance-learning format are
able to remember and apply key concepts in a future class.
The results of the present research may, in part, be explained by the
similarity between the capstone class and certain distance-learning options.
The capstone business class is unique in that it requires students to
integrate multiple business concepts. It requires a level of creativity and
independent thought that may be missing in many of the traditional business
That requirement, however, is inherent in some of the distance-learning
options. In the capstone class, students are forced to work in a virtually
unstructured format, similar to the unstructured format of a learning
contract or preparation for a CLEP exam. The students who are able to
successfully complete a learning contract or prepare on their own for a CLEP
exam may perform better in the capstone class because they have learned
to work independently and identify key issues on their own. They may have
learned to apply creative solutions to overcome any problems associated
with the distance-learning format (Pool, 1996) and, therefore, may exhibit
more creative problem solving in analyzing the problems presented in the
That may also explain why there is no difference in the performance of
students who had taken television classes and those in the traditional
classroom setting. The television option provides information through a
lecture format and requires students to take examinations in a traditional
classroom setting. In essence, the only unique aspect of the television option
is the location of the television reception. Television classes, therefore, do
not force students to learn in the same unstructured manner as the learning
contracts or preparing for a CLEP exam.
Those results may also reflect a greater level of motivation on the part of the
students who have studied in the distance-learning format. Students who
are motivated to study independently and to overcome the problems
inherent in being separated from the instructor may put forth more effort in
their class preparation. In that case, distance learning is an acceptable
means of teaching simply because it reaches a more motivated student
Our results are based on students at one specific university and may not be
applicable to students at other schools. They do, however, support the
findings of previous research that indicates that distance-learning options
can be an effective way to deliver information to students. Further, the
present research clearly suggests that academicians must expand beyond
simply studying the effectiveness of television- and video-based learning
options. Other forms of distance learning may be even more effective as
"Learning cannot be based on acquisition of fact alone ...." (Lever-Duffy,
1991, p. 15). It appears that when students are actively involved in the
learning process, they learn valuable skills and problem-solving techniques
that enable them to be successful in the future.
BRENDA S. SONNER.
Troy State University--Montgomery Montgomery, Alabama.
TABLE 1. Comparison Across Quarters.
(TABLE) ANOVA Quarter resultsVariable 1 2 3 4 5 F PFinal course average
81.8 77.9 80.6 78.1 78.9 .921 .456No. quarters to finish required classes 8
10 10 7 7 .781 .541No. required business classes completed 9 9 8 11 10
1.588 .186% students who have earned distance-learning credit 68 40 40 89
Note. ANOVA = analysis of variance.
TABLE 2. ANOVA With Course Grade as the Dependent Variable.
(TABLE)Source df SS MSE F pModel 1 99.653 99.653 1.682 .198Error 83
4,916.830 59.239Corrected total 84 5,016.483 59.720.
Note. ANOVA = analysis of variance. Groups: 1 = only regular classes; 2 =
at least 1 course via distance learning.
TABLE 3. Grades in the Capstone Class.
(TABLE)Student course experience n Average gradeTraditional onsite classes
only 30 78.3Television courses (and no other distance learning option) 31
77.3Learning contract courses (and no other distance learning 4 83.2
option)CLEP credit (and no other distance learning option) 7 88.1.
TABLE 4. ANOVA With Course Grade as the Dependent Variable.
(TABLE)Source df SS MSE F PModel 2 940.693 470.346 9.385 .0002Error 72
3,608.401 50.117Corrected total 74 4,549.094 Specific contrasts Group 1 2
3Group 1 -- 2 -- 3 ** ** --
Note. Groups: 1 = only regular classes; 2 = television as the only distance
learning option; 3 = learning contracts or CLEP credit as the only distance
learning option. LSD =. CLEP =. **LSD test with significance level .05.
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APPENDIX A REQUIRED BUSINESS CLASSESStatistics I.
Introduction to Computer Science.
Principles of Marketing.
Principles of Management.